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Consumables are those things that your printer uses up, wears out, or burns through as it does its work. Paper is the primary consumable, and the need for it is obvious with any printer. Other consumables are less obvious, sometimes even devious in the way they can eat into your budget.

You probably think you are familiar with the cost of these consumables. A couple months after the old dot-matrix ribbon starts printing too faintly to read, you finally get around to ordering a new $5 ribbon to hold you through for the rest of the decade. But if you buy one of today's top-quality printers—laser, thermal wax, or dye-diffusion—you may be in for a surprise. When the toner or transfer sheet runs out, the replacement may cost as much as your old dot-matrix printer.

The modern trend in printer design and marketing is to follow the "razor blade" principle. The marketers of razors (the nonelectric shavers) discovered they could make greater profits selling razor blades by offering the razors that use them at a low price, even a loss. After all, once you sell the razor you lock in repeat customers for the blades.

Similarly, the prices of many inkjet and laser printers have tumbled while the consumables remain infuriatingly expensive, often a good fraction (such as one-third) of the cost of the printer itself. This odd situation results from the magic of marketing. By yourself you can't do anything about it, but you must be aware of it to buy wisely.

If you truly want to make the best buy in getting a new printer, you must consider its overall cost of ownership. This total cost includes not only the purchase price but the cost of consumables and service over the life of the printer. Take this approach and you'll discover a more expensive printer is often less expensive in the long run.

When you have a small budget, however, the initial price of a printer becomes paramount because it dictates what you can afford. Even in this situation, however, you should still take a close look at the price of consumables. Two similarly priced printers may have widely varying costs for consumables.


Laser printers use up a bit of their mechanism with every page they print. The organic photoconductor drum on which images are made gradually wears out. (A new drum material, silicon, is supposed to last for the life of the printer, but few printer models currently use silicon drums.) In addition, the charging corona or other parts may also need to be periodically replaced. And, of course, you need toner.

Laser printer manufacturers have taken various approaches to replacing these consumables. Hewlett-Packard's LaserJet printers, for example, are designed with one-piece cartridges that contain both the drum and toner. The whole assembly is replaced as a single unit when the toner runs out. Other laser printers are designed so that the toner, drum, and sometimes the fuser, can be replaced individually.

The makers of the latter style of printer contend that the drum lasts for many times more copies than a single shot of toner, so dumping the drum before its time is wasteful. On the other hand, the all-in-one cartridge folks contend that they design their drums to last only as long as the toner.

Surprisingly, from a cost standpoint, the choice of technology does not appear to make a difference. (From an ecology standpoint, however, the individual replacement scheme still makes more sense.)

A similar situation reigns among inkjet printers. Some designs incorporate the printhead nozzles into the ink cartridge. Others make the nozzles a separately replaceable item. Although the latter should have a cost advantage and a convenience disadvantage, as a practical matter the differences are not significant.

A more important issue to consider with inkjets is single versus separate cartridges for ink colors. Many printers—typically the less expensive models—use a single cartridge for all three primary ink colors. If you use all three colors equally, this is a convenient arrangement. Most of the time, however, one color will run out before another and force you to scrap a cartridge still holding a supply of two colors of rather expensive ink. If you are frugal or simply appalled at the price of inkjet ink, you'll want a separate cartridge for each ink color.


One way to tiptoe around the high cost of laser printer consumables is to get toner or ink cartridges refilled. Most manufacturers do not recommend this—because they have no control over the quality of the toner, they can't guarantee that someone else's replacement works right in their machines. Besides, they miss the profits in selling the toner or ink.

Quality really can be an issue, however. The Resolution Enhancement Technology of the HP LaserJet III-series, for example, requires toner with a particle size much smaller than that of toner used by other printers. You cannot tell the difference in toner just by looking at it—but you can when blotchy gray pages pour out of the printer. When you get cartridges refilled, you must be sure to get the proper toner quality.


When comparing the costs of using different printer technologies, do not forget to make allowances for machines that require special paper. In most cases, approved media for such printers is available only from the machine's manufacturer. You must pay the price the manufacturer asks, which, because of the controlled distribution and special formulation, is sure to be substantially higher than buying bond paper at the office supply store.

With inkjet printers, paper is another profit area for machine-makers. Getting the highest quality from an inkjet requires special paper. Inkjet ink tends to blur (which reduces both sharpness and color contrast) because it dries at least partly by absorption into paper. Most inkjet printers work with almost any paper stock but produce the best results—sharpest and most colorful—with specially coated paper that has controlled ink absorption. On nonabsorbent media (for example, projection acetates), the ink must dry solely by evaporation, and the output is subject to smudging until the drying process completes. Of course, the treated paper is substantially more expensive, particularly if you restrict yourself to buying paper branded by the printer-maker. For printing photos, gelatin-coated papers yield glossy images with great color depth—at a price that can reach 50 cents to a dollar a sheet. Fortunately, inkjet printing has become so pervasive that every paper-maker offers tailored inkjet papers and competition is driving down prices to the range of ordinary copier paper.

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